With its 263-page script and a running time of five and a half hours over two nights, one might expect New Music, the 1990 trilogy of plays by Reynolds Price at Greensboro's Triad Stage, to be a sprawling, panoramic history.
Instead, from the beginning in August Snow, in 1937, Price maintains a very tight focus on a group of five high school friends and a handful of immediate kin. He follows them over the next 37 years in an unnamed town in Eastern North Carolina. Just how insular is this group? During the span of this show, the circle of intimates in New Music expands by exactly three.
Still, New Music succeeds in puncturing its preferred target, the bubble of a small-town aristocracy, by taking seriously the growing dilemmas of its golden child. That would be central character Neal Avery, who, by all accounts, began life a veritable merchant-class prince as son to the owner of the town's only clothing shop for men. But that charm has already failed his wife, Taw, when we first meet him at age 22. She's ready to call their one-year marriage quits after the latest in a series of sudden disappearances—all-night, unannounced drinking excursions with Neal's boon companion, Porter. At the start of August Snow, Taw gives Neal an ultimatum. The golden child must grow up, or she will leave.
What follows over three plays seems, in part, an exploration of the Peter Pan syndrome, as a self-described "social chairman of a crossroads town" is ultimately forced to acknowledge how brief that office is and how limited its privileges ultimately are. But there's more than a faint note of sociopathy in a character who acts so irresponsibly with his wife, and who refuses to acknowledge Porter's homosexual attraction while stringing him along with fantasies of road-trip escapes to Texas and Mexico. It's telling that, in a bachelor party blowout, Neal tells Porter, "I thought I'd be human for a while." As it turns out, the process takes a lot longer than he imagines.
Price's characters struggle to come of age, deal with midlife crises and face death when World War II intrudes upon the trilogy's second part, Night Dance. The advent of another war, in Vietnam, and social forces that foretell the decline of American small towns, compels the group to grapple with their legacy and the one their children face in Part 3, Better Days. Regrettably, though, it is also significant that no African-American is ever seen in these houses, cafes, and other locales—and that Price's script only briefly mentions their existence in one scene of the entire trilogy.
A series of vivid portrayals ably lead us through these two nights. Under Preston Lane's direction, Mark Mozingo and Ginny Myers Lee are compelling as Neal and Taw Avery, while Gayton Scott and Price's robust writing makes Neal's mother, Roma, an outsized, audacious Southern matriarch with acidly candid and hilarious remarks for all comers and occasions. The raw devotion of Matthew Delaney's Porter shines through, while Leah Turley is rock-solid as family friend Genevieve.
As older versions of the same characters, Christine Morris sinks her teeth into Taw in Better Days, and Jeffery West convinces as a Porter who has escaped Neal's gravitation. As Cody, the son who went off to war and then found it impossible to leave, a razor-sharp Chris Raddatz gives no quarter; particularly in his scalding stand-out monologue detailing life in a war. Bill Raulerson proved "Southern culture on the skids" isn't just a band name with his uneasy, taciturn work as Dob Watkins in Night Dance and a frequently comic take on the character, later, in Better Days. But rushed, projectionless line deliveries marred Michael Flannery's brief appearance as Fontaine Belfont.
This ambitious project marks the first time since a 1989 run in Cincinnati that the trilogy has been presented in a single production. Price's vigorous, vivid writing takes us on quite a journey and this production proves something I've known from long experience: The night skies aren't empty above small towns. Neither are the people who live in them. New Music provides a nuanced, vibrant reminder.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Carolina fictions."